Saudi women have started a right-to-drive campaign that has quickly garnered the attention of the international media as well as the concern of conservative Saudi Arabian authorities. The organizers of Women2Drive had began encouraging women to take to the streets en masse, behind the wheel, on June 17 in defiance of a religious edict, fatwa, forbidding women to drive automobiles. A figurehead of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, was detained and released on Saturday and then arrested on Sunday by Saudi police shortly after she posted a video of herself driving a vehicle.
The social media tools that al-Sharif and her fellow activists had used to spread the word about the campaign were quickly removed from the internet. The video of her driving was taken down, as was its replacement. Additionally, the Facebook page marking the June 17 protest against the driving ban was removed and al-Sharif’s Twitter account appeared to be ‘secretly’ taken over by Saudi authorities. Unsurprisingly, the internet community rallied: the video has been reposted, two new facebook pages are online, as is a new twitter account for the campaign.
Before it was removed by Saudi censors, the “I Will Drive Starting June 17th” Facebook event page read:
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We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves. We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driver’s licenses and we will abide by traffic laws.
The Women2Drive campaign is not the first time a group of Saudi women have organized a protest against the religious fatwa (as distinguished from a governmental law) issued against women driving, but this most recent attempt has taken practical and rhetorical measures to avoid a drastic response from Saudi authorities. According to Abu Dhabi’s English publication The National:
Planners of the June 17 protest were taking care to avoid violating the kingdom’s prohibition of public demonstrations by urging women to go about their errands individually and not converge on one place. “It means these girls learnt a lesson. They’re smart,” said Fawziah Al Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University and one of the women who participated in a 1990 protest against the driving ban.
Women who drove in that protest were severely punished. Some lost their jobs, were forbidden to travel abroad, or were maligned in mosque sermons.
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Nesrine Malik, writing for the Guardian, provides insight into the repression of women in the Saudi kingdom and the challenges women face in relying on male drivers. She concludes:
The Saudi driving ban is a social, rather than political, issue, over which the authorities would rather not incur the religious establishment’s wrath or create controversy. But if there is one lesson Arab rulers would do well to heed, it is that withholding rights raises the chances of an explosion of dissent.
The arrest of Sharif certainly appears to have done nothing to dissuade the Women2Drive campaign from going ahead. If anything, it seems to have garnered it more publicity. There are reports that the religious police are teaming up with traffic forces to patrol and stymie the campaign. If these are to be believed, then Saudi Arabia is in for a first-of-its-kind confrontation on June 17.
The brutally-repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only country with a ban against women driving. It is the only religious edict of it’s kind. I can’t help but recollect the 9,000 pound elephant that Obama steered clear of during his Middle East address—barely tiptoeing around Bahrain’s demolition of Shiite mosques, a move taken by the Sunni rulers of Bahrain and surely supported by the Saudi monarchy—when he failed to call into question Saudi Arabia’s brutal repression of dissent or any form of pro-democracy gatherings. As’ad Abu Khalil addressed the lack of consistency between the West’s lauded free societies and their support of brutal, patriarchal dictatorships in his post entitled, “Saudi women: why they are not on the agenda of Western feminists”:
Can you imagine if this happened in Iran? Can you imagine the world reactions? Can you imagine the outrage that would pour from Western capitals? [...] Western governments have as much credibility on democracy and human rights as much as Dominique Strauss-Kahn has credibility on gender issues.